A new source – Avico’s Annals – tells a very different story about the famous conversion and baptism of the Danish Viking King, Harold Bluetooth, in the 960s
Rumours gave been around for some time concerning the discovery of a hitherto unknown medieval chronicle from the 10th century. Allegedly written by a chaplain at the court of the Viking King, Harold Bluetooth, parts of the chronicle was recently published by Sven Rosborn, a medieval archaeologist known for his life-long work as head of the Museum in Malmö, and his numerous books about the history and archaeology of Viking Age. In itself, the discovery reads like a ot-of-this-world detective story and begins with a curious find of a golden forged disk with an inscription, indicating this was a talisman which belonged to Harold. The following essay is a first attempt to present and evaluate this new source as to its veracity by focusing on one of the significant events in Harold’s life – his conversion to Christianity following the so-called “Ordeal of Poppo”. In no way, this is new stuff and the following essay does not aim to cover the full range of sources or recapitulate hundred-year old debates. This was done a few years ago by the historian Michael Gelting. Rather, the essay aims to place the new account into the context of what is known of the event, which arguably did take place in the periode between AD 963-965.
In popular history writing, it is generally believed that not only did Harold convert his people to Christianity – as he claims on the large Jelling Stone – but that this “triumph” was preceeded by a conversion prompted by an ordeal carried out by Poppo, and followed by a baptism. This is the story told by the famous golden panels from the church in Tamdrup, which tell us how Harold Bluetooth was baptised.
The golden panels from Tamdrup probably derived from a now lost Golden frontal, akin to Lisbjerg’s. All in all, eight of such frontals are preserved from Danish churches from the 12th century. The panels from Tamdrup were likely created in the same workshop as those from Sindbjerg.
The panels from Tamdrup are not preserved in situ, but the motive on two panels shows the donation of the golden altar to the church. Although difficult to see, it appears the donator is crowned. Further, the story told in the panels presents us with an iconographic rendition of the baptism of Harold Bluetooth. First, we see Poppo carrying a heated iron mitten, next he shows his unharmed hand to the King, Harold Bluetooth, and finally, the King, is baptised. The received wisdom is, this event took place in AD 963 when Harold Bluetooth accepted Christianity on behalf of his people. An event, he later commemorated on the great Jelling Stone with the Inscription, “that Harold who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian”
To some extent, this story is well-known from the earlier sources. Or rather, so it seems from several preserved chronicles from the 10th century and later. However, a closer look at these shows that the linkage of the conversion, the ordeal, and the baptism is late. None of the sources – apart from the Tamdrup plates – witness to this linkage.
Routger’s Vita Brunonis
The first source is Routger’s Vita Brunonis – Routger’s life of Bruno. Bruno was archbishop of Cologne and brother to the German emperor Otto the Great. In this vita we read:
“At this time, however, their King, Harold, together with a large part of his people [who were all] bowing their neck to the King of Kings, Christ, rejected the falsehood of the idols.
From: Ruotgeri Vita Brunonis archiepiscopi Coloniensis, chpt. 40). Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum, 1841, by Georgius Heinricus Pertz (my translation)
Routger’s life was written between AD 965-969, at the instigation of Bruno’s successor, Folkmar. Michael Gelting has dated the writing to AD 968, and he has also identified Folkmar as the “Poppo” of the other contemporary chronicler, Widukind. The event must, concludes Gelting, have taken place before AD 965.
Turning to Widukind, who is writing ca. AD 967-08, we get a more elaborated and detailed account of the same event. Widukind writes:
“In the old days, the Danes were Christians, yet continued worshipping idols in the pagan manner. However, a dispute arose in the presence of the King during a gathering regarding the worshipping of their gods. The Danes affirmed that Christ was a god. But they claimed there were other, greater gods who revealed themselves to mortal men through even more powerful signs and wonders. Against this, a certain cleric named Poppo, who now exhibits a truly religious life as a bishop, declared that there is one true God, the father, together with his only-begotten Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit; and the other look-a-likes were verily demons and not gods. King Harold, quick to listen and slow to speak, asks if Poppo wishes bodily to demonstrate this faith. Unhesitatingly Poppo affirms his willingness. The King then demands that the priest be guarded until the next day. The next morning, the King orders a huge piece of iron to be heated, and demands that it shall be carried by him. Now the confessor of Christ unhesitatingly carries the iron as far as the King orders. The priest then shows everyone his unharmed hand, thus witnessing to everyone his Catholic faith. At this, the King decrees that Christ is to be worshipped as the only God. He orders all of his subjects to renounce the idols and honour the priests and servants of God.
From: Widukind: die Sachsengeschichte des Widukind from Korvei. Ed by Paul Hirsch and H .-E. Lohmann, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum, 1935 (repr. 1989), 3:65 – my translation.
As said, a careful perusal of the sources carried out by Michael Gelting have dated the event to 963. Also, Gelting identifies Poppo as that of Folkmar. According to Michael Gelting the discrepancy between the two accounts is readily resolved. Routger, writing about Bruno at the instigation of Folkmar (Poppo), is remarkably reticent about any quasi-miracles performed by Bruno. It appears such stuff was frowned upon in the clerical milieu of Cologne at this time, writes Gelting, who also says that the event was the result of a political manoeuvre instigated by Bruno of Cologne to prevent King Harold to team up with Count Wichmann the Younger, a maternal cousin of the Emperor, Otto the Great. Wichmann had instigated a rebellion in AD 963, when Otto had been obliged to prolong his sojourn in Italy. During this period, his brother, Bruno of Cologne, was de facto ruler of Germany. In this capacity, he was obliged to secure the political backing of Harold, whom Wichmann, according to Widukind, had tried to embroil in his rebellion.
The Annals of Avico
Recently, however, a new source has surfaced, presenting us with quite another outline of the events and a different explanation. This source, consisting of a fragmented version of a yearbook, is part of a compilation known as the “Gesta Wulinensis Ecclesiae Pontificum”, which unfortunately at present is only available in a Polish translation from the 1960s. Alledgedly, the fragments of the yearbook were written by a cleric called Avico in the 990s; later, they were incorporated into the Gesta, a compilation from the 12th century telling the story of the Bishopry of Wolin. The present whereabouts of the manuscript of the said “Gesta” is unfortunately currently unknown. What we possess is a Polish translation of the Latin text carried out in the 1960s.
As of now, we do not know the precise layout of the yearbook. Nor do we have an accurate sense of its wider political context. Also, as said, the text is at present only known from a Polish translation. Nevertheless, the circumstances of the discovery of this source do add credibility to its rendition of the events, or at least as an alternative source , which we have to take into account. The alleged author, Avico, was, according to his own information, chaplain at the court of Mistivoj, the prince of the Abodrites. Arguably, Harold was married to his daughter, Tove. She is known from a rune stone from Sønder Vissing Church. According to his writings, Avico later served as her chaplain. In this capacity, he was an eyewitness to the events during the reign of Harold.
According to Avico’s writings, the event – concerning the so-called conversion of Harold – took place in AD 965, at the “beginning of the year, directly after the birth of Christ… King Harold returned from Jomsburg as the sole ruler over the Danes after a failed campaign against Wichmann, nephew to the Duke Hermann”. Hermann Billung was a trusted lieutenant of the German Emperor, Otto the Great, and a close relative. “[After his return Harold] found the land in disarray and his people deprived of God’s protection after his father Gorm had dispelled all God’s teachers and clerics from the country”, Avico writes. Elsewhere, in these annals, we hear about the death of Gorm’s wife Thyra and his lapse from Christianity into heathendom after her death. Apparently, Thyra died in AD 958, and was laid to rest as a Christian (This date is confirmed in the dendrochronological dating of the planks used in the burial chamber. Later, she was removed by Gorm and reinterred as a heathen in the northern mound. According to Avico, Gorm lived five more grief-stricken years until he took to sea in his ship in AD 964. Next year – 965 – the grave in the mound was according to dendrochronology disturbed. At this point Harold took over and likely built the first church at Jelling, where he reinterred his mother next to her son, Cnut Danaast. Likely, the skeleton buried beneath the first church at Jelling is not Gorm, but Harold’s brother Cnut Danaast, on top of whose grave Harold seems to have constructed his first church.
The story goes on to explain how during these years “we, the missionary brethren [to which the author Avico thus belonged], who were protected by the queen, Mistivoj’s very pious daughter, stayed put in this country, although we were forced to witness terrible barbaric acts, and [despite] the malice to which we were daily subjected. Thus the first act of the returning King was to reestablish order in the kingdom and its return to the Christian faith, and also to still the rebellion, which grew in the southern region, bordering up to Germany. On that spot which is called “Denermark”, at the stone, which marked the border to the bishopric in “Sliasvik”, the King of the Danes met the German legate sent by Duke Hermann; and in the presence of the venerable bishop “Goppon” and with his blessing, he [Harold] renewed his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and turned his country into the protective orbit of Pope Leon, whose divine power was executed by the Archbishop Adaldag (Bishop 937-88). Goppon, who had recently been ordained as bishop after brother Marcus, who had been sent on a mission to Oldenburg [the seat of Mistivoj], selected and appointed new bishops to Jutland and Seeland; from there missionary brothers should be sent to far-away countries like “Sconviue, Norregia, Kutlandia, Burgendviue och Sveonia (Scania, Norway, Gotland, Bornholm, and Sweden)”.
Several points are worth taking note of in this text. First of all, “Denermark” is here identified as the “marca”, a borderland south of the Danevirke. “Marca “was in a specific German “Terminus Technicus” defining a border region. Here, the King met the legate sent by Duke Hermann and a newly ordained bishop named “Goppon”. The editors of the writings of Avico have tentatively identified “Goppon” as a misreading of “Poppo” or “Poppon”. Thus leading us to accelt Gelting’s identification of “Poppo” as Folkmar of Cologne? However, this identification does not fit well with that of bishop “Goppon” , which Avico tells us followed in the footsteps of a “brother Marcus”. It appears the Poppo of Avico’s text is different from that of Ruotger and Widukind.
In search of the Poppo of the text by Avico, we have to turn to Adam Bremensis, who wrote a hundred years later (AD 1070-75). After Adam’s recount of the event – based on Widukind – he writes that “at the time of the Christian mission [to the North], the bishops did not have a permanent seat, but rather travelled widely to compete with each other in the effort of preaching for their own as well as strangers.” (Adam Bremensis, 2:26). Further, Adam notes that although he knows their names, he has found it challenging to identify which diocese belonged to whom. Thus the list of the bishops ordained by Archbishop Adaldag, is spurious, he writes. However, Adam does identify two bishops by name, who at this time were bishops “with the Danes”, one named Folgbracht [Adelbrecht] and following him, he lists a”Merka”. Now Merka, has been identified as the Bishop of Oldenburg at this time, while the Chronicle from Roskilde (and later Saxo Grammaticus) knew Folgbracht as Folbert. This Folbert, these sources tell us, followed in the footsteps of the first bishop of Ribe, Ljufdag. (The Chronicle from Roskilde also names Marko as bishop in Schleswig). A later tradition has it that Liufdag was martyred by the people of Ribe around 950. Perhaps Liufdag was murdered as part of the “disorder” caused by Gorm’s lapse into heathendom, and then after Ad 965 followed by the Folbert, mentioned by Adam?
Further, might this Folgbracht or Folbert be identified as “Poppo” and – following this – “Goppon”? As a matter of fact, yes. Poppo was a nickname given to people named with the prefix folk- meaning “people” in German and English; a word derived from “populus” in Latin. Hence, Poppo would be a natural short form (as Gelting writes, based on the suggestion of Mia Münster-Swendsen). “Folgbracht” would mean “brought from the people” = Poppo.
It appears the dating of the event to AD 963 and the identification of Poppo as Folkmar from Cologne may at least be disputed. Following Avico, we may date the event to AD 965 and Poppo as the later bishop in Schleswig and Ribe.
If so, the event was not caused by the need of Bruno of Cologne to secure a political ally during the fight against Wichmann, as Gelting writes, but rather the need for Harold to ensure the support of his German allies and perhaps friends from his youth – Archbishop Adaldag and Duke Hermann Billung – against the pagan rebellion he encountered while returning from Jumla to take up the realm after the death of Gorm.
The Ordeal and the Baptism
Avico’s story corresponds to Routger’s and Widukind’s in lacking a reference to any baptism of Harold. According to Gelting, this “lack” might have been caused by an earlier baptism. In this perspective, we should note that Avico tells us in one of the other preserved fragments that Harold and his older brother Cnut were given as hostages in AD 943 by their father Gorm when he was trying to gain help from the Duke of Billung in a civil war, which Gorm had become embroiled in with his brother, Harold, King of Funen. We are told that the two boys were brought to Archbishop Adaldag and baptised in Bremen. Later they grew up in Merseburg and Quedlinburg. At least, this is a plausible explanation for the lack of a royal baptism at the meeting in AD 965. Harold had already been baptised in AD 943.
Finally, the ordeal. Did it take place, as Widukind tells us? We do not know. The annals of Avico, however, tells us how Harold in AD 984 was shot by an arrow in his leg near his knee, causing a massive bloodletting. Nearly dying, Harold was on this occasion saved by yet another (or the same?) Poppo, who took some red-hot coals and cauterised the wound. Perhaps, this vignette inspired later historians to invent the story of the ordeal, which was then embroidered upon until the artist at Tamdrup created the famous panels. By Avico’s account the survival of the king was a near-miracle. However, this leaves us with no explanation as to why Widukind wrote about the ordeal. Was the “ordeal” perhaps inserted in his chronicle at a later date?
Whatever the answer is to this conundrum, the three different sources tell three different takes of the same event, presenting us with a rich and varied set of possibilities of how to understand the conversion of Denmark in the 10th century.
Mort to the point, though: The comparative walking-through of the story – as told here in the three chronicles – makes it highly unlikely that the recently discovered Annals of Avico is a forgery. Was this the case, the event of the so-called conversion of Harold would surely have been aligned with either that of Routger or Widukind – or one of the later versions of Widukind’s story in Thietmar, Adam of Bremen or even Saxo Grammaticus; and not given a entirely different slant. The curious discrepences wow for the veracity of the newly found source.
As it is, Avico’s Annals tells a story differing not only in date and perspective; the story is also peopled by a different set of protagonists. This makes it distinctly unlikely, the annals – fragmentary as we know them – is a modern forgery. The use, though, of the Annals should proceed with caution until we possess a full edition. Or the original manuscript is found.
Ruotgeri Vita Brunonis archiepiscopi Coloniensis, chpt. 40). Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum
Ed. by Georgius Heinricus Pertz
Widukind: die Sachsengeschichte des Widukind from Korvei.
Ed by Paul Hirsch and H .-E. Lohmann, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum,
Hannover 1935 (repr. 1989)
Thietmar von Merseburg, Chronik, ed. R. H oltzmann, trans. Werner Trillmich
8th edn with a ‘Nachtrag’ by Steffen Patzold:
Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters, Freiherr-vom-Stein-Gedächtnisausgabe vol. 9,
Adam von Bremen, Hamburgische Kirchengeschichte.
Ed. by Bernhard Schmeidler,
Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum.
Poppo’s ordeal: Courtier Bishops and the Success of Christianization at the turn of the first millenium
By Michael Geltung
In: Viking and Medieval Scandinavia (2010) vol 6, pp. 101-130
The Viking King’s Golden Treasure. About the Curmsun Disc, the discovery of a lost manuscript, Harald Bluetooth´s grave and the location of the fortress of Jomsborg
By Sven Rosborn med bidrag av Tomas Sielski
Rivengate AB 2021